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Memento : Issue 31
The first of an estimated 15,000 brides of Australian soldiers who had fought in World War I landed on Australia’s shores in 1919. When Australia sent its young men overseas to fight in the war, there was little thought of how they would be brought home – and no inkling that they would want to bring fiancées, wives and, in many cases, children, back with them. During World War I, Australians fought in Europe and the Middle East and spent much of their leisure time in the United Kingdom, where they had no difficulty finding girls to ‘walk with’. Diaries and letters home describe these ‘foreign’ girls, often in glowing terms. Signalman Oliver Coleman wrote home in June 1917 about a girl he had met, describing her as ‘a fine girl as tall as me, lovely hair down past her waist, nice brown eyes and a good lively companion’. Gunner Jack Duffel wrote to his mother about a ‘nice little girl ... a real deacent [sic] and quiet “Dorset” lass’. After the 1st Anzac Corp arrived in Flanders in April 1916, Australian men also met French and Belgian women. Local girls, refugees, nurses and others were behind the front, although to read the official histories one would think there were no women about! Postcards with their saucy or sentimental messages and popular songs, such as ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’ and ‘Somewhere in France is a Lily’, are a better indication of what life away from the front was like. Organising ships to transport up to 180,000 men back to Australia when the war ended was not an easy task. There was a drastic shortage of shipping at a time when many countries needed to transport troops home. Making space for women as well complicated the problem, and the authorities underestimated the number of brides, children and fiancées they would need to transport. Some of the accommodation on board was well below expectations. For example, The Times of London described conditions on the Wainama as scandalous. Violet Proctor, an English woman accompanied by her new husband Chris, recorded that the ‘only toilet appointments were one small washing basin, which was broken in such a way that water would not remain in it, and one small mirror. Nearby was an electric globe which was kept burning as the only other light in the cabin was from one small porthole’. This was in a cabin for six people. The brides received a mixed reception in Australia. Some were made very welcome by their new families. They would have found settling into this remote and very different country easier than those for whom the welcome was not so warm. A few women were not met at all. There were some sensational newspaper stories about brides and fiancées who arrived only to find that their partners had abandoned them. At the end of World War II, the Australian government was no better prepared to transport war brides than it was in 1919. Many Australians know that a large number of Australian women met and married [far left] Edith Keppie met Australian soldier Charles Kindred in Scotland during World War I. They married in Glasgow in 1919 and returned to live in Australia. [above] The SS Osterley carried soldiers, their wives and, based on this newspaper photograph, lots of young citizens to Australia after World War I. [left] Identified only as ‘war bride and children’, this photograph is among our Repatriation Commission records. NAA:A7342,M23 MEMENTO WINTER 06 11